3-3 …And Then There Were Bees
Cauliflower roughly brought down the heel of her boot onto the steel frame to which she entrusted her weight. The springy rubber harmlessly bounced off the metal and wasn’t able to produce a sound audible above the rattling of the rover. Unsatisfied, she repeated the action twice more, until she could barely grasp a dull ‘thunk.’
“Ummm…” The Newbie started, tilting his head to regard her uncertainly. “Is everything alright?”
Cauliflower turned narrowed eyes on The Newbie, but before she could say anything, Edge stepped in. “She doesn’t want to talk about it.”
That was both true and helpful. Cauliflower didn’t feel like talking. Still, something about how Edge said that increased her irritation. “I’m not some monster you need to train the Newbie to avoid,” Cauliflower declared, glaring at Edge. “I’m just irritated. That’s all.”
“Why?” The Newbie asked, his little squirrel face trying its best to be earnestly concerned. Though, Cauliflower wasn’t in the mood to be healed by even that adorable innocence.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” Edge emphatically declared, staring resolutely into the Newbie’s eyes.
Cauliflower pursed her lips at Edge and opened her mouth to explain out of spite. She assembled her thoughts to speak, but the words got caught in her throat. They wouldn’t come out no matter how much she forced them. Every time she tried to move her tongue, the lurching of her heart stopped her.
Cauliflower closed her mouth. She didn’t want to talk about it. There had been a danger that she hadn’t been the first to spot. She had failed in her job. She was a failure and upset about it. She couldn’t say any of that.
Instead, Cauliflower brought her binoculars to her face and turned them to the sky. It had only been a couple hours since they had left the camp that morning and the grasslands were already being phased out. The appearances of scattered copses of trees ten minutes ago heralded the entrance to yet another forest.
That offered her something new to be irritable about. She could’ve sworn the border crossing offered a bit of a better view the last time they’d tried it. She was certain there were rocks and cliffs and stuff before. Now all she got to see was trees and grass. She hadn’t seen anything other than trees and grass since they entered the damn country three months ago.
Cauliflower stared at the boring blur of green as leaves flitted past. Then, her irritable musing was once again interrupted by the same uncertain voice. “Umm…” The Newbie hesitantly tried again.
“Just drop it, Newbie,” Edge demanded. Cauliflower didn’t bother looking down, but from his tone she could tell he was laying lazily against the railing behind him.
“No,” The Newbie quickly objected. “I wasn’t gonna talk about- Are we out of the country yet?”
“Hard to tell exactly,” Knot called from behind Cauliflower. “But it should be another few hours yet.”
“Hmmm.” As the Newbie hummed his ascent, Cauliflower looked down in time to see him giving a disappointed nod.
This sight piqued Cauliflower’s curiosity and made her forget a bit of her irritation. “Why do you ask?”
“I just remembered. You guys said you’d tell me why we’re leaving the country once we had,” The Newbie declared as his eyes flitted around the car defensively. “I was just curious.”
“Right, well, we aren’t near prying ears. We can talk about that now,” Edge declared, perking up and letting a smile spread across his face as he prepared his next words. “Basically what we meant was that the king of San Ranto is paranoid, stupid, and also a sonofabitch.”
“I feel like I’m missing something,” The Newbie complained. Even as he tried to furrow his brow seriously, he couldn’t escape the image of a tiny woodland creature. Like a bunny trying to do its best.
Cauliflower couldn’t help but smile at that, which made the Newbie turn his gaze on her. Feeling compassion towards the confused squirrel, she tried to explain. “San Ranto’s king is a bastard and is in power. So he does bastard things.”
Cauliflower nodded happily at her own simple explanation, but the Newbie didn’t seem satisfied. Seeing that, Edge spoke up again, “That’s just how things are there. Every few years, they go to war with Auroria. It’s like a tradition.” As he finished his declaration, Edge placed his hand on the slender knee beside him and squeezed. “Lotus.”
Lotus’s face twitched at the sudden stimulation. Then she slowly raised her head from where it had been lying on Edge’s shoulder. She cracked her eyes, drowsily stared into Edge’s face, and let a fiant smile bloom on her face. After a few seconds passed, Lotus shot up and glared at the world.
As Cauliflower held back her laughter, she thought Lotus might start growling at her. Edge ignored both of them and continued his train of thought. “Lotus, how many times has San Ranto declared war on Auroria?”
Lotus took a break from glaring at Cauliflower to crinkle her brow at Edge. After a few seconds of puzzlement, she said, “Seven times in the last twenty years.”
“Why is that?” Edge asked, happily taking on the role of interviewer.
“A lot of reasons,” Lotus responded, stretching her back languidly. “But mostly because the king’s a sonofabitch.”
“I understand that part just fine,” The Newbie complained, frowning at the latest answer. “I want to know why that means we need to leave.”
“If San Ranto’s going to war, then you’ve got to get out fast,” Champ said as he was roused from his own slumber.
“Because the king’s a sonofabitch.” Champ declared with a yawn.
“Oh, well that explains everything, thanks,” The Newbie responded, finally frustrated enough to attempt some sarcasm.
“You’re welcome,” Champ replied, grinning happily at his own intentional density.
“I feel like this is something I should know,” The Newbie pounded his little fists into his knees as he complained. “What would’ve happened if we stayed? Would we be conscripted? I’ve heard that sometimes happens to mercenaries.”
“Not for war,” Edge rebutted dismissively. “The association wouldn’t stand for something like that. Mercs can only be compelled to work in monster related emergencies. Like if there’s something big near a city… or something.” As Edge finished speaking, his face turned sour and he turned his gaze towards his shoes.
Before the Newbie could complain again, the Captain’s voice cut in from the front seat. “We had to leave, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to. The association protects mercenaries from mistreatment, but it has made some concessions to the states. One of those is that the travel of mercs suspected of espionage or the like can be restricted during times of war.”
“Wait, so you’re- we’re spies?” The Newbie asked. As he looked around the car, his squirrely face was filled to the brim with both confusion and excitement.
“No,” Edge declared flatly, cutting short the Newbie’s flight of fancy. “The king of San Ranto is paranoid as sin. He assumes everyone’s reporting his movements to the Aurorians. Once the war starts, no mercs can leave the country until it’s done.”
“Stupid? You’re right. It is,” Edge said energetically.
“So, what happens then?” The Newbie asked, turning concerned eyes on the car as a whole.
“Sadly, for the most part it’s the average people who suffer.” The Captain answered, turning back to the Newbie with a doleful expression.
“Only for a few months though,” Cauliflower attempted a jolly tone to lighten the mood, but she couldn’t bring herself to feel that much either way. It really was strange how the Captain could take everything so personally.
“Any months is too long to spend in a country with no economy,” Champ rebutted, attempting to stretch his long legs, but being pushed back by an assault from Lotus’s feet.
“I feel like I’m missing something again,” the Newbie complained, trying to look confused, but becoming engrossed in the war of feet.
“San Ranto has declared war on Auroria four times in the last decade.” Lotus stated, coolly ignoring the battle she was viciously fighting. “Every time they’ve reconciled before they could reach the capitol. You know why?”
“Because of the mercs,” Edge eventually declared when the Newbie seemed unwilling to take a shot.
“Mercenaries are actually taking revenge?” The Newbie asked, turning worried puppy eyes towards the captain. “That doesn’t sound…”
“Yes and no,” the Captain informed, showing an uncomfortable smile. “Mercs take the best revenge they can. That is, not working for you. So long as the war is on and merc travel is restricted, mercs don’t work. Easy as that.”
“Mercenaries are important, I know,” The Newbie said slowly, turning his eyes back to the battle between Champ and Lotus. Hostilities had already ceased, however. Champ was already pouting as he sat cross legged on his seat. Seeing this, the Newbie looked disappointed, then continued with more clarity. “The country has the knights. Couldn’t they-“
“Knights can’t do shit,” Champ declared with a derisive ‘hurrumph’ as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“The knights can do quite a lot, but” The Captain tried to interject before being interrupted.
“But they can’t do shit,” Edge declared matter-of-factly. “There’s just not enough of them. They have their hands full managing monster populations and overseeing city guards. They can’t fill in for the mercs. If mercenaries aren’t working in your country, every merchant caravan and transport shipment that’s dumb enough to leave home is destroyed before it travels ten miles. Without mercs, your people starve.”
“Then why does he still-?’
“Because he’s paranoid, stupid, and a sonofabitch,” Edge, Lotus, and Champ answered the Newbie in tandem.
“I see…” The Newbie responded, looking to his shoes contemplatively.
Cauliflower smiled at the group’s unanimity. It was no secret that many merc bands had been avoiding San Ranto of the last few years. That was why being there had been so profitable.
With that thought, Cauliflower frowned. Going back to the Captain’s hometown sounded fun, because she would get to see something interesting, but she hadn’t even thought of the money issue. The work would be so cheap in Narabesque. Why couldn’t the Captain have been born in a less popular country?
As Cauliflower was dwelling on that thought, the rover ran over a root or something and the whole car shook. It was nothing strange, but in that instant Cauliflower felt like her heart was being smashed between two colliding trucks. That oppressive feeling overwhelmed her entire body. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t do anything.
When Cauliflower had noticed, the feeling was gone and she was on her hands and knees in the bed of the rover. Her elbows stung with the force of her landing. Edge quickly stood and gently helped her to her feet. To her right, the Newbie obtrusively waved his hands in a desperation to help.
Cauliflower payed no attention to any of that. She couldn’t. Her entire being was dedicated to processing what’d just happened. It had to be. It was important.
After a few seconds, Cauliflower was on her feet. As an ominous understanding slowly flowed into her, she quietly said, “Stop…”
“What?” Edge grunted, trying to peer up at Cauliflower’s face which was still looking at the floor.
“Stop the car,” Cauliflower declared, her voice taking on her normal tone. That was wrong. This was important. Urgent. She started to shout. “Stop the car! STOP THE CAR! STOP THE CAR!”
Without thinking, Cauliflower had already lunged over the railing and started grasping at Knot from behind. The rover swayed back and forth on the narrow wooded path as Knot desperately tried to maintain control. Cauliflower payed no mind to this. She only cared about one thing.
Eventually, in desperation, Knot slammed on the breaks. The whole car lurched and emitted a dreadful hiss as it slid along the loose dirt of their path. When they finally came to a halt, the world was covered in a thick fog of dust. For a second, bewildered peace dominated the area. Then the car shook again as a small tap from behind signaled the stop of the truck they were escorting.
“What the hell was that!?” An irritable voice called over the rover’s radio.
“We’re gonna figure that out now,” the Captain responded. He was barely visible through the swirling dust as he turned to give a questioning look to Cauliflower.
Cauliflower herself merely clutched her stomach and winced as tears came to her eyes. The rover’s frame had dug into her too fiercely. She could only be thankful that it, combined with Knot’s broad back, had kept her from flying out of the car entirely.
“What’s this about?” the Captain asked when decided that asking with his face wasn’t enough. His tone wasn’t reprimanding or irritable. It was merely emphatic. He needed to know.
That sentiment got through to Cauliflower and reminded her of the urgency her body had distracted her from. Immediately she shot up straight to give her report. That only lasted a few seconds, however. Her body was still incapable of something like that.
Doubling over again, Cauliflower looked up at the Captain. “This forest… it’s… monster,” she barely managed to croak out between labored breaths.
“Tree ents? Dryads? How many?” The Captain asked quickly, drawing closer until their noses were almost touching.
“All…” Cauliflower gasped out.
“All of them!?” The Captain asked in disbelief, turning to look at the trees which were still invisible through the dust.
“All… one…” Cauliflower declared, shaking her head at the man who no longer watched her. “It’s all one monster… The whole forest…”
“How is that even possible?” Edge’s voice demanded from beside her.
“I don’t… know,” Cauliflower responded with a helpless shrug.
“Poplar tree ent?” Lotus speculated from the rear.
“Are you sure about this?” The Captain finally asked as he turned back to Cauliflower.
“I’m not sure… what species,” Cauliflower responded with a shake of her head.
“Are you sure it’s a monster?” The Captain asked, his face trying to remain calm, but his tone growing impatient. Cauliflower nodded and the Captain chewed his lip anxiously.
“What is it doing?” Edge asked, turning to peer at the assembled trees which were starting to become visible through the haze.
“Asleep I think,” Cauliflower answered, her stomach recovering enough to straighten up a little. Though she still had to grasp her abdomen as she continued. “Think that’s why I couldn’t sense it well. Plus, it’s too big. You know, forests and… trees.” As she gave her pathetic excuses, it dawned on Cauliflower that she’d failed again. As she trailed off she drooped her head to stare at her shoes.
“Does it know we’re here?” Knot asked evenly. Not bothering to look at him, Cauliflower felt a warm pressure sprawl across her head. Lifting her head, she found Knot’s hand resting easily on top of it.
For a second, she felt reassured. Then she shook his hand off, turned around, and leaned against her normal spot. Grasping her binoculars in her right hand, she closed her eyes and expanded her mind. It stretched out like a soft, sticky bubble. It first encompassed her companions and their car then it moved beyond through the trees. Eventually it stretched out a few miles, but of course she couldn’t feel the end of the forest.
Once her mind bubble had expanded, Cauliflower searched for any strange feelings within it. She found none. There was neither the dull sting of awareness nor the sharp stab of killing intent. Just nothing. Just normal. She redoubled her efforts. She put all her focus onto the feelings, neglecting her hearing, smell, and even pain; she just felt her bubble. Then she could finally get it. Like a light switch flipping on, she could feel it. It was a rhythmic, low vibration which spread through everything. The air, the land, the entire forest was vibrating. Thuuum thuuum thuuum. Like a heartbeat that permeated the entire world. It was a massive flow of power circling through the forest.
Cauliflower opened her eyes and said, “It doesn’t know. I think it’s still asleep.”
“So what do we do?” Edge asked, turning towards the Captain.
“Can we just push through?” Champ asked hopefully. He gave the assembled trees a skeptical look and added. “If it’s asleep it should be fine, right?”
“And if it wakes up?” Edge asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“Die.” Lotus declared stoically before Champ could come up with an argument.
“We could figure out something,” Champ responded defensively.
“How many miles does this forest stretch for?” Edge asked, giving Champ a meaningful look. “The biggest thing I’ve ever killed was at most one mile from nose to tail. That’s not even considering that I have no idea you attack a forest.”
“How does a forest attack you?” Champ asked back.
“No idea, but it does,” Lotus interjected between the two men. “If it’s a monster, it does.”
“Are we past halfway yet?” In a nervous, little voice, the Newbie tried to cut off the simmering argument. When all eyes turned to him, the Newbie shrunk back slightly. After a few seconds, he seemed to regain his confidence, took a step forward, and continued. “No point in turning back if it’ll take us longer than going through.”
The assembled mercenaries nodded at the statement and turned their eyes to Knot, who shrugged.
“We aren’t past halfway,” Cauliflower asserted bluntly.
“Are you sure of that?” The Captain asked gravely.
“I’m not sure, but I know,” Cauliflower gave the only response that could accurately reflect what she was feeling.
The Captain sighed and rubbed his eyes. Then he looked up to regard his team. “We’ll turn back and circle around. Stupid to be in a lion’s den if you don’t need to be.”
“Will our esteemed client be ok with that?” Edge asked, turning to look at the truck which was still rammed firmly into the rover’s rear.
“The truck can turn around here,” Champ added after following Edge’s line of sight. “Not enough room.”
“We’ll go in reverse. Nice and careful,” the Captain answered, trying his damndest to sound positive about that prospect. “As for our client, I didn’t plan on giving him a choice.”
With that declaration, the Captain turned to the radio in front of him and started his negotiations. After around five minutes of complaining over the radio, the merchant threw the door of his truck open and jumped out to start complaining in person. Since the Captain was so nice about it, it took the merchant around fifteen minutes to understand his were reverse or reverse at gunpoint. After that, negotiations went fairly smoothly.
Once people were all back in their seats, the transport truck’s engine revved loudly. With a several shrill squeaks and a grating scrape, the truck dislodged the rover’s sturdy metal frame from its bumper. Then it slowly started pulling away back down the track they had been following until now. A few seconds later, the rover started following after it.
The fastest the truck could reverse was around 15 MPH, which meant they would spend about an hour puttering back out of the forest. The long time bothered Cauliflower a little, but slow was good. Less obtrusive. Less waking.
For around fifteen minutes the rover crunched and crackled its way along the wild forest path. All the while, the team sat in silence, staring at the trees. Cauliflower still couldn’t calm her heartbeat. Ever since she had finally felt the true strength of this forest, her chest had been throbbing and the rushing of blood through her ears was so loud she could barely make out the other’s words.
As for the others, they weren’t scared. Not exactly. Not at the forest at least. They were scared that she was scared. As much as she tried, she couldn’t keep the feeling from her face. When they looked at her, they recognized that. Well, most of them recognized that. The Newbie seemed as oblivious as usual, but he could at least read the mood.
Without conversation to distract her, Cauliflower turned to her work. That was the Edge thing to do, so she thought it was probably smart. Taking her binoculars, Cauliflower turned her eyes to the tree tops.
As she expanded her mind, she tried desperately not to feel the vibration. She didn’t need to know they were in a monster’s mouth anymore, she just wanted to check for anything else. Not that this helped at all. Once something was felt, it couldn’t be unfelt.
After a while, Cauliflower’s heartrate finally slowed. She thought that was a relief until she realized the new pace it was taking. As her heartbeat synchronized with the vibration of the monster beneath her, Cauliflower felt like she wanted to rip her traitorous heart out. She pressed her fingertips into her chest so hard she was sure she’d have a bruise, but that didn’t help.
Then, she felt something. It passed through the border of her perception and then it was gone. Reflexively he turned her head to the left and stared into… nothing. Nothing, but the damn trees. No sounds, but the hum of the engine and the grinding of tires in dirt. No smells, except the damp decay of the forest and a bit of herself.
“What’s up?” Edge asked lightly enough to not set everyone off.
“Felt something a bit,” Cauliflower answered simply. The thought of saying it was nothing didn’t cross her mind once. She’d been in the business too long for that.
“Is it moving?” The Captain asked solemnly. He had dignity even when asking if he was going to die. Cauliflower really respected that part of him.
“No. Something else,” Cauliflower answered with a shake of her head. “Here and gone. We’re probably fine.”
Just as she was issuing that last assurance, the sudden twinge came back. This time from the right. Yet again, it disappeared immediately. It only lasted half a second at most. That… was a strange coincidence. It couldn’t be on purpose. A monster had no way of knowing her range. Certainly not well enough to stay just on the outside of it.
Before she could finish that thought, it came again. This time from the front-left of the car. Then the back-left, then the front-right. Then there were four of them. As their small caravan crawled through the forest, four monsters were circling just inside her range. Slowly, they closed in.
“Something’s coming,” Cauliflower’s mouth reported on its own before her brain needed to say anything. “There’re four of them. Moving together. They’re fast, flying, and getting closer.”
“Where are they?” The Captain asked, standing form his seat and scanning their surroundings.
“Around 2 miles out. Circling us.”
“Any idea what?” Edge asked, grasping the rifle which leaned against the seat railing beside him.
“None,” Cauliflower answered dutifully. “They’re about torso sized and seem coordinated. Also they fly in circles.”
“Above the tree line?”
Edge bit his lips as he considered that. “Insects?”
“Or they levitate,” The Captain added with a sigh. Then he raised his voice and took on his more commanding tone. “For now, Cauliflower, move to the fif-“
“We can’t use the machine gun,” Cauliflower interrupted before she could receive her orders. “If we shoot the trees, we could wake the forest.”
Hearing her, Edge grit his teeth and released the rifle he had been readying.
Champ looked over to Cauliflower and asked, “What good is there in worrying about that if we’re gonna be slaughtered anyway.”
“Shoot all you want,” Cauliflower declared, meeting Champ’s eyes. “Just don’t miss.”
“How long until contact?” the Captain asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“The forest is dense so we won’t see them till they’re right on us,” Cauliflower explained as she did the calculations in her head. “Five minutes, give or take.”
The Captain nodded at that, took a deep breath, and said, “Lotus and I’ll be the only ones firing until it looks like we’re gonna be overwhelmed. Everyone else, just knock ‘em off if they get on the rover before I say otherwise. I’ll radio back and see if they don’t have any more reverse gears on that thing.”
As the Captain tried to explain the situation to their over reactive client, the rest of the team prepared for the worst. Lotus looked over her rifle and removed the scope. Champ obstinately looked over his assault rifle. Edge merely drew his back knife and stared down the forest. In the midst of all that, the Newbie fidgeted. Alternatively, he fussed with his hands and stared down at the weapon for which he had yet to receive training.
Looking at that sight, Cauliflower felt a little piteous and called out. “Newbie, you don’t know how to do anything yet, so be a tripod.”
“What?” The Newbie asked, dropping all his nervousness to stare at her in confusion.
Cauliflower smiled back at him and stood. She took the boy’s hand, pulled him from his seat, and guided him behind where Lotus was standing. Forcing him into place, she took both his hands with hers and made them hover a few inches away from Lotus’s back.
Lotus looked at them without turning her head and let out a sigh mixed with a groan.
“You know,” Cauliflower called to her, trying to sound as playful as usual. “Frown lines are the least attractive type of wrinkles.”
“Don’t take weird concerns about my face,” Lotus complained weakly before grabbing her rifle by the barrel and lifting it up to bring it into position.
Cauliflower smiled at the proud woman. Then at the Newbie, standing behind and looking around awkwardly with his arms raised. Before she could add anything else, the Captain’s discussion finished. The merchant’s truck gave a harsh growl and started to pull away.
By the time Knot closed the distance again, Cauliflower could hear something. The sound had probably been there for a while, but it just started to creep above the roar of the motors. It was a high-pitched, persistent buzzing.
Hearing the same thing, Edge looked up and declared, “Sounds like I was right.”
“We never said it was a bet,” The Captain responded, already gripping his twin pistols in both hands.
“But if it was, I would’ve won,” Edge shouted back with a barely forced grin.
With no one else willing to pick up the banter, the conversation died. For a moment, there was silence. Just humming and buzzing. Then, Cauliflower shouted, “In range!” She tried to point to one of the monsters, but quickly gave up. It was hard enough to follow them with her eyes, let alone her finger.
Cauliflower tried to watch them as they moved into and out of her vision, flitting between the trees. It was hard to catch sight of them for more than a few seconds, but eventually she could composite a picture in her mind. Bees. They were bees. Bees the size of a man’s torso, covered in red and black stripes. They sped around on nimble, iridescent wings and their posteriors ended in a large, steely spike.
“Legionnaire bees,” The Captain shouted with a grimace.
“They’re just flying around us,” The Newbie observed quizzically.
“Trying to decide if we’re enemies or food,” Champ observed, patting the Newbie’s shoulder and making the boy’s entire body shake.
“Only four of them. We do this textbook and we should be fine,” The Captain declared reassuringly from the front. “Lotus, don’t hit the thorax.”
“I know,” Lotus responded as she leveled her gun at the circling bees.
“Fire when ready,” The Captain ordered.
“Don’t miss,” Cauliflower reminded, attempting to sound teasing, but not quite hitting the mark.
Looking at the back of Lotus’s head, Cauliflower knew she rolled her eyes as she sighted down her weapon. Then, Lotus began tapping her foot every time a bee passed in front of her gun. On the tenth tap, she squeezed her finger and a loud boom echoed through the forest. At almost the same moment, one of the bee’s heads shattered to pieces, sending up a shower of orange blood as it did. The bee’s momentum sent its body tumbling into the forest beside the rover. When the corpse came to a stop, the battle had officially begun.
The three remaining bees stopped circling and rushed towards the rover in unison. Before they could come in attack range, however, the Captain had readied his pistols. The two bees coming from the front didn’t have to wait a second before their heads were taken, leaving their bodies to collapse impotently into the dirt.
Seeing that it was the last of its group, the fourth bee stopped its assault and flew straight up before Lotus could sight on it. After the bee had disappeared above the tree tops, all eyes turned to Cauliflower.
“It’s keeping pace just above us,” Cauliflower reported without being asked.
“Think it’s gonna call reinforcements?” Champ asked as he chewed on his lip in discomfort.
“Not as a rule…” The Captain answered slowly.
“It’s coming back!” Cauliflower shouted as soon as she felt it descend.
Seconds after the declaration, the leaves above them rustled. Then the huge bee swooped down almost directly on top of Lotus. The bee clicked its mandibles and its wicked stinger wobbled slightly as it thrust it out towards its target. Before it could strike home, however, Lotus raised her gun. With a pull of the trigger, the monsters headless body was left falling through the air.
Without direction, the bee’s corpse soared over Lotus’s head. Then it struck the roof of the merchant’s truck behind her. The entire team held their breath as they watched the body bounce three times along the roof. When it ran out of truck, it bounced out of sight behind it. Then, a second later, there was a monstrous crash and an explosion of orange fluid as the corpse passed under the truck’s back wheel.
The rover remained silent for a second. Then, the entire car shook as Knot hurriedly swerved to the left to avoid the tattered remains of the smashed bee. Seeing the firmly planted tree that was now in their path, the entire car started screaming unintelligibly.
“Yeah, I got it!” Knot shouted over the voices as he hauled on the wheel again.
As the car lurched back onto the dirt path, Cauliflower was barely able to keep herself from falling face first into the rover’s railing. Once the team had recovered their footing, they all turned back to look at the truck. It was still driving steadily behind them, but its rear was now covered in dripping, orange viscera.
“Shit,” cursed into the silence of the rover.
“Maybe they won’t notice,” Champ said, his voice not matching the hope of his words.
“What’s going on?” The Newbie asked, looking over the grim faces of his colleagues.
For a moment it seemed that no one would answer him, but then Edge spoke up. “Legionnaire bees don’t like to be eaten. So they developed a special little surprise for when something tries to do it.”
“What?” The Newbie asked quickly, his eyes turning back towards the truck. He looked as if he was waiting for it to explode. The desperate expression would have been cute if things weren’t actually so desperate.
“They’ve got a special pheromone sack in their thorax,” Edge answered, raising his voice as the world was slowly filled with a cacophonous humming. “When it’s broken it tells all the ones nearby that there’s danger.”
“What happens then?” The Newbie asked, staring into the older man’s eyes, willing him to say something positive.
Edge turned his eyes towards the forest to their right. Then, shouting above the overwhelming buzzing that surrounded the team, he said, “They deal with it!”
No one was able to add to that statement. They all turned to stare into different parts of the forest. A few seconds later, Cauliflower could feel it. They had entered her bubble. At first it was one or two. Then, a second later, it was more than twenty. In the next moment, she had lost count.
“Lots are coming! Too many! From everywhere!” Even as she said the words, Cauliflower questioned wasting the breath. The overwhelming roar of flapping insectoid wings said as much.
Ten seconds later, the first of them arrived. Three of them. From the right, left, and front. Lotus and the Captain wasted no time in calling their targets and putting them down. Truly a professional display.
Not that it helped much. In seconds the group of three was replaced by four. When they were shot down, they were replaced by seven. Within half a minute it was already overwhelming. There’s a limit to what three guns can do.
The first to make it through the line of fire came from the right and lunged for Edge. He deftly leaned right of the attack. The foot-long, poisonous stinger came uncomfortably close to Edge’s abdomen, but caused no damage. As the bee passed by, Edge brought his left arm down with his knife. Like that, a single, iridescent wing fluttered to the ground.
Cauliflower watched, bemused, as the injured bee tried desperately to right itself. With its single wing, its efforts only caused it to spin through the air more violently. Then it bounced off a tree stump and fell to the earth.
After that, everything devolved into chaos. The number of bees in each assault was only increasing. The repeated gunshots from Lotus and the Captain couldn’t win out against the monstrous chorus of angry bees. Edge did his best to cut down what came to the right side. Champ kept smashing a particularly persistent bee in the face with the butt of his rifle. Lotus kept shooting. The Newbie tried desperately not to be in the way of anything deadly.
In the midst of that, the Captain was the Captain. He was a machine. His arms moved as if they were separate entities. As one was dealing with its target, the other was moving to find its own. Back and forth, this cycle continued. That focused, unfocused look of his which took in the battlefield was almost disturbing in how calm it could be.
As Cauliflower watched, one of the bees that reached the rover started charging towards the Captain. Before she could reach for him or shout out, the Captain turned to regard it. In movements that couldn’t be entirely conscious, he swung his right arm. The barrel of his right pistol struck against the bee’s stinger, pushing it a few inches to the right. Like that, the stinger was left to stab empty air. At same time, the Captain’s left arm moved. He pressed his second pistol against the bee’s head and a second later, it was gone in a mist of orange. As the bee’s carcass tumbled onto the rover bed behind him, the Captain turned back to the swarm.
Cauliflower sidestepped the still-twitching bee as it tumbled to her feet. Then she heard a harsh crash from the front of the car and turned around. It was hard to miss what was wrong. A bee had landed on the truck’s frame right above Knot in the driver’s seat. As she watched, the bee withdrew its stinger from where it had been stuck in the windshield. Then it made a second attempt to stab Knot in the face. Once again, the stinger met glass and punctured through, leaving a three inch diameter hole and sending cracks through the entire windshield. When the stinger came to a stop, it was stuck a couple inches from Knot’s nose.
As the bee tried for a third shot, Knot cursed and fumbled for his shotgun with one hand. His other hand and most of his attention were occupied trying to keep the rover from tumbling into the trees.
Hurriedly, Cauliflower gripped her assault rifle by its barrel and brought its butt next to her head. Then she swung it with all her might against the massive insect. When Cauliflower’s gun met the monster’s exoskeleton, she felt like she was hammering concrete. Its body was hard and its grip was strong. It barely shuddered at Cauliflower’s assault, but it did halt its stinger in surprise.
Leveraging this mild success, Cauliflower lifted her rifle over her head and brought it down on the bee’s. She got one, two, three strikes in quick succession. Then she stopped for a second to look at her progress. Perhaps it would be better to say lack of progress. She stared at dozens of reflections of herself in the bee’s eyes. The bee stared back, gnashing its mandibles at her.
The monster still couldn’t seem to decide if she was a dangerous enough threat to bother changing its target to her. That made Cauliflower grit her teeth in irritation. “Dammit!” She screamed as she set another horizontal swipe at the bee’s head.
In the next second, the loud boom echoed from the front seat. What was left of the rover’s windshield along with most of the bee’s abdomen was shattered and blown away as Knot found his shotgun.
“Thanks for the assist,” Knot called to Cauliflower without bothering to look at her.
Cauliflower merely frowned at that. She would’ve had it in a few more hits. Almost certainly. Almost.
“I could use some help!” Champ shouted, interrupting Cauliflower’s disappointment
Turning around, Cauliflower found Champ desperately holding back three bees as they alternately attempted to sting the rover. “Right,” she called out as she reached his side and readied her gun-club.
Cauliflower swung at an approaching bee and struck it’s abdomen in midair. Just as before the exoskeleton was thick and the butt of her rifle merely bounced off of it. However, the bee’s wings couldn’t adapt quickly to the sudden force. The bee was sent drifting backwards a few feet before it could adjust its flight and approach again. It was hardly a hopeful sight, but at least it did something. Getting a feel for this battle, Cauliflower reaffirmed her grip and turned to another approaching bee.
That was the next segment of Cauliflower’s life. She didn’t bother paying attention to her back or either of her sides. Her companions had that covered. Even if she couldn’t trust her team, she didn’t have the leisure to worry about anything else. It took everything just to cover the front. The bees kept coming and neither she nor Champ could deal a finishing blow like this.
Occasionally, Lotus or the Captain would find the window to take down one of the bees that piled up in front of them. However, that was one shot they weren’t firing at the incoming bees. Inevitably, the headless bug would be replaced within seconds.
Cauliflower didn’t know how long it took, but eventually there were seven bees queuing up to attack. Thankfully, there was only so much space for the bugs to maneuver through. She and Champ were able to barely hold them all off. Not for long, though.
Just to keep their head above water, Cauliflower and Champ had to pull off one successful attack every second or so. There was a limit to performing that kind of exercise and Cauliflower had already long passed it. Her arms had no energy left in them. The only things keeping them swinging was bloody-mindedness and adrenaline. Even the gunfire coming from behind them had slowed its rhythm. The reassuring explosive samba had slowed to something of a waltz. If she had the leisure to do so, Cauliflower would’ve been despairing. Instead, she just forced herself to keep swinging.
“I’m not dying to a fucking bug!” Champ shouted from beside her
The man’s attempt to raise his own spirits raised Cauliflower’s as well. She couldn’t die to something like this! She passionately put all her strength into another swing and knocked the latest attacker away. It gently floated off course. Just before it could correct itself, its wing crashed into one of its brethren’s sturdy bodies. Coming out of the collision, the thin, crumbled remains of the bee’s right wing offered a few jerky flaps. Then the bug fell into the dirt and disappeared into the distance.
Seeing that, Cauliflower unconsciously laughed. She’d killed one. Without shooting it. A bit of a lucky kill, but luck was also part of the job. For half a second, Cauliflower reveled in the exhilaration of victory. Then two more bees emerged from the forest to take their fallen ally’s place.
Seeing the eight bees crowding together to make another assault, Cauliflower realized something. She hadn’t killed anything. They’d killed each other. In their fervor to overwhelm the mercs with numbers, the bees were bouncing all over each other. Occasionally they’d hit wrong and one or more would fall, but that didn’t matter. More always came.
Gritting her teeth, Cauliflower had no choice but to ready her weapon again. Then she went blind. Instinctively, she swung at what she remembered being the nearest target. She hit nothing but air. As she readied her weapon for another guess at the enemy’s position, slowly the world came back.
The first thing she saw when her vision returned was dozens of herself reflected in huge, black, bug eyes. “Shit!” She shouted on impulse as she brought up her foot to kick at the monster. Her foot struck the bee’s thorax and sent it falling back a few inches.
As the bee moved backwards, it twisted its abdomen to try and prick her calf. It missed its mark, however, and instead struck itself lightly into the thick, rubber sole of her boot. “What!? Dammit!” Cauliflower screamed as the bee tried to withdraw its stinger and almost yanked her off her feet.
Unable to steady herself on one foot, Cauliflower fell backwards and hit something sturdy, yet soft. “Dammit!” Edge screamed from behind her as he tried to recover his balance.
Cauliflower didn’t have time to apologize for that. She had to recover her grip on her rifle and launch a counter attack. Before she could do either, the bee’s head exploded when three bullets intersected in its brain.
“Thanks,” Cauliflower muttered softly as the bee’s body fell outside the rover, freeing itself from her boot.
Back on two feet, Cauliflower moved to return to her post. Then, she noticed the sky. It was visible. They were out of the forest. She couldn’t keep a grin from forming on her face. Her heart filled with a warm sense of relief. They’d survived. Well, at least the first part, she thought, turning her attention back to the swarm before her.
“Okay, everyone, fire at will!” The Captain declared excitedly. “Just don’t shoot towards the forest side!”
“They’re coming from the forest side!” Champ protested, switching his grip on his rifle to stop using it as a club.
“Just do your best!” the Captain cried out as he nimbly reloaded both pistols. “At least we can keep our flanks clear!”
After Cauliflower beat away one last bee, Champ stepped forward and started firing. In front of Cauliflower, a light storm of bullets cut through the bees one by one. At the same time, she heard a repeated popping behind her as Edge did the same. While the monsters dropped and were left in their dust, Cauliflower had enough time to ready her own rifle.
When Champ called out, “Reloading!” Cauliflower moved to replace him.
Like that, they were able to keep the car clear. More bees kept streaming towards them, but they got taken down as soon as they entered their range. It was going well. Really well. With plenty of ammo at their feet, no problem at all.
When Cauliflower’s gun finally clicked empty, Champ was already waiting beside her. She announced the swap and ducked down to reload. As she did, she smiled to herself. At this point, survival was just a matter of persistence. She could be very persistent.
Then she made the mistake of looking back to the forest. That storm front is really low to the ground, was her first thought. After a few seconds, her brain caught up with her eyes. Her insides turned to ice and her hands stopped moving. Bees. All bees. They were persistent too. Too persistent.
“How many bees are in a cloud?” The words slipped lifelessly out of Cauliflower’s mouth before she could stop herself.
Hearing that, Champ and Edge stopped shooting and followed Cauliflower’s eyes. The men said and did nothing as they marveled at the buzzing squall. After half a minute of that, the sound of angry bugs started to encroach and forced their attention back to their duty.
“Shit!” Edge shouted from behind Cauliflower as he shot down an approaching bee. “Can we turn around? Throw this thing in forward drive and maybe we can outrun it.”
“By the time that truck turns around and shifts gears, we’re gonna be caught up in the worst of it,” Knot shouted from the driver’s seat, obstinately refusing to look ahead of himself.
“Anyone’s artes?” Champ asked, his face contorting in despair at his own question.
“Against that?” Lotus asked, her voice still calm, but her brow furrowed in desperate concentration. “It’d take artillery.”
“Just deal with what we have in front of us,” The Captain called out from the front seat as he shot down two approaching bees. “If we get far enough away from their nest, they might lose interest.”
With those words, the conversation died away and was replaced with the sound of increasingly desperate gunshots. After another minute of that, an unexpected interruption came.
“They’re attacking the trailer!” the radio squawked shrilly. “They might damage the cargo. Get them off!”
Looking back to the truck, Cauliflower found five bees crawling over the large metal box it towed. The bees were diligently attempting to kill the trailer. They seemed confused that their poison didn’t take affect no matter how many times they pierced the thin metal. As she watched that spectacle, a strange smear of orange caught her eye. Then she remembered something that had been forced from her brain in the excitement.
“Can we clean the truck?” Cauliflower called out hopefully, turning to the rest of her squad. “If they can’t smell us anymore, they’ll back off, right?”
“How would we?” Edge responded, smashing the butt of his rifle into the face of a bee which had managed to dodge three volleys of bullets. When the bee drifted a few feet back, he recovered his firing stance and took it down. Then he added. “If we owned our own flamethrower, someone could get up there and torch it. But apparently, we wouldn’t use it enough to get one.”
“We wouldn’t,” Knot shouted back irritably. “If you want to set the truck on fire, use a Molotov!”
“We don’t have the time to make one and it wouldn’t be enough!” Edge rebutted.
As the two had the same argument for the tenth time, Cauliflower watched the Captain. He had stopped shooting and was fixing his gaze at a place between Lotus’s legs. Then he asked, “What does CO2 smell like?”
“Like not… at all,” Edge responded, his face contorting in confusion. “It’s in the air it smells like air, right?”
“Bugs can smell CO2!” The Newbie interjected happily. “They hunt with it or something.” As all eyes turned to him, he scrunched back and timidly added. “What? I read it in a book once.”
“Good enough,” The Captain responded with a smile. Then he nodded his head towards where he’d been staring before and shouted, “Fire extinguisher!”
Lotus knelt down and retrieved the small red canister. Then she threw it to the Captain and he caught it out of the air. After clipping the extinguisher to his belt with a carabineer, he turned a determined gaze on the transport truck.
“Don’t break your neck,” Edge advised. His tone was one of nonchalant exasperation, but his eyes were too fidgety to not be concerned. He really should be more honest.
“I’ll be fine!” The Captain declared with a confident smile as he waved for the team to give him room.
Once everyone had pressed themselves against the railings of the rover, the Captain took off. He hopped into the rover between Edge and Cauliflower. Then, in three long strides, he reached the back of the bed and leapt.
As the Captain did so, he crossed his hands, holding his twin guns, over his chest and his body started to glow. Moving into the air between the two cars, his arc became strange. He flipped upside down unnaturally and his body started to spin about his spine. Then he stretched out both of his arms and started to fire his guns at nothing.
After releasing around ten shots, he flipped again and landed in a kneeling posture on top of the transportation truck’s trailer. For a moment, he knelt there with his arms outstretched. Then the trailer shook and he fell forward on his belly, gripping the sides of the trailer.
When he regained his balance some, he holstered one of his guns and took aim with the other. In five shots, he killed the three bees that were on top of the trailer. Then he inched forward until he reached the back of the trailer. Leaning over the edge, he fired a few more shots until the last of the bees were cleared off. Then he holstered his second gun and retrieved the fire extinguisher.
The hiss of the extinguisher was inaudible above the sounds of gunshots and angry bees, but in a couple minutes ever orange part of the trailer was covered in thick, white foam. Once that as done, the Captain clung to the top of the trailer and waited for it all to finish.
After about five more minutes of desperate fighting, the storm front coming from the forest had grown visibly dispersed. The swarm lacked focus and began to retreat into the forest. After twenty minutes, all the bees were either dead or gone and their small caravan could stop to catch its breath.
Once the Captain had dismounted the truck and returned to the team, Lotus stepped forward and filled the silence. “You know, the fire extinguisher uses CO2 propellant. That doesn’t mean it shoots CO2.”
Looking back at the trailer, still dripping with white foam, the Captain shrugged. “We’re alive either way.”